RAGBRAI – a pilgrimage of the human spirit

Barb Arland-Fye
Archbishop-elect Thomas Zinkula, center, and his brother Jerry, left, talk with other RAGBRAI participants July 28 outside the St. Patrick Catholic Church rectory in Tama before beginning that day’s 80.6-mile ride.

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

Fr. Adam

Father Chuck Adam has now experienced both sides of RAGBRAI, as a bicyclist and as the leader of an overnight site for riders and their crews, which deepens his appreciation and understanding of the weeklong bicycle ride across Iowa.

On July 28, the pastor of St. Thomas More Parish in Coral­ville led a wedding rehearsal as the parking lot and every inch of green space became an RV park dotted with small dome-shaped tents for participants of RAGBRAI (Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa).

The eight-day “rolling festival of bicycles, music, food, camaraderie, and community” draws tens of thousands of participants each year, with 2023 marking the 50th anniversary of the “the oldest, largest, and longest multi-day bicycle riding event in the world” (ragbrai.com). This year boasted extremes: number of riders, heat, hills and a kick-in-the-butt storm that challenged riders and their hosts.


“I’ve been on the other side of RAGBRAI, looking for the bananas, looking for the food, looking for the beer,” Father Adam said, calmly, as parish volunteers and RAGBRAI riders streamed in and out of the church. Parishioner Blanca Lehnertz and other volunteers took their bake sale “on the road” to the parking lot, asking RAGBRAI campers for a free-will donation for Scotcharoos and other delicious treats to go toward the parish’s expansion campaign. “It was really neat to see the generosity of the people in the parking lot,” she said.

It was about three hours before the wedding rehearsal, followed immediately by the RAGBRAI Mass. Archbishop-elect Thomas Zinkula presided at the Mass with Father Adam and Father Jeff Belger concelebrating. Each of Iowa’s four dioceses committed to offering Mass daily on RAGBRAI as “4DiocesesCycling4Christ.”

The archbishop-elect, known by many as the “RAGBRAI Bishop” for his previous rides to meet people where they’re at, participated in the last two days of this year’s ride and like many, riders, felt the agony of the heat! He confessed at the start of Mass in Coralville, “It was a rough day for me,” referring to the 80.6-mile leg from Tama to Coralville, which he rode with his brother, Jerry Zinkula, and two priests of the Archdiocese of Dubuque.

The priests are Father Michael McAndrew, pastor of the Circle of Saints Cluster in Tama, Chelsea and Belle Plaine, and Father Scott Bullock, pastor of St. Edward Catholic Church in Waterloo. The Tama church served as an overnight host site and Father McAndrew presided at Mass there that afternoon. Bishop Zinkula and Father Bullock concelebrated.

Highlights and lowlights for ‘RAGBRAI Bishop’

“Concelebrating at the Mass at St. Patrick Church, Tama and presiding at the Mass at St. Thomas More Church, Coralville were a joy,” Archbishop-elect Zinkula said “The people who attended made a special effort to be there and there was full, active and conscious participation.”

It was his suggestion that the four Iowa dioceses collaborate to celebrate Mass at each RAGBRAI overnight stop. “It takes a little effort in terms of organizing and planning, but some people really appreciate it. And who knows what impact it has even on those who don’t attend, but are aware that there is a Mass every evening in every overnight town,” he said.

“The meals afterwards were enjoyable as well, each in their own way,” he added. “Meeting some interesting people here and there was fun. Parts of the ride on Friday and Saturday were delightful; others, not so much! Cramping later on during the Friday segment and wondering if I would be able to complete the ride was a lowlight. It became a matter of endurance and survival!”

Cycling connections

Fathers Bullock and McAndrew both know Archbishop-elect Zinkula and looked forward to riding with him and his brother on Friday (July 28), they said while eating pork loin sandwiches served after Mass in Tama to the RAGBRAI crowd. “I talked (Father Bullock) into it,” said Father McAndrew, whose hometown is Coralville. Chelsea and Belle Plaine were along the route. “I figured it would be great to see the people there and my parents live in Coralville, so I can get a home-cooked meal at the end of it.”

Father Bullock has bicycled many times with Archbishop-elect Zinkula and served with him in the archdiocesan Tribunal where Father Bullock followed his friend as judicial vicar and the archbishop-elect followed Father Bullock as rector of the archdiocesan seminary. This year’s RAGBRAI was the first for Father Bullock. He appreciates the exercise (it’s therapeutic), the beauty of God’s creation, the spirituality and the fun of being with friends, he said.

Riding out the storm

Michael Mulligan of St. Mary Parish in Williamsburg intended to ride the last day and a half of RAGBRAI. “I wanted a way to cross-train for tennis,” he said during dinner after Mass in Tama. When he read in The Catholic Messenger that Mass would be celebrated along the way in 2023, he said to himself, “I’m in.”

The challenging weather conditions tested his resolve. He didn’t make it in time for the 6:15 p.m. Mass in Coralville. He hadn’t expected the heat index to reach 110 degrees F or “that a storm would strike near the end of the day destroying tents scattered throughout the community of Coralville,” he said in his July 29 blog. “I thought I was doing okay with all the conditions until I left Oxford … ‘This is Oxford’s parting gift,’ one of the riders shouted, referring to the steep incline we confronted immediately after (we) departed the town. It foreshadowed something that just about got the best of me, miles and miles of steep hills.”

He later told the Messenger, “I was in Coralville when the sirens went off around 8 p.m. I huddled in the tunnel with other RAGBRAI riders who were riding together. We remained for a couple of hours until the winds died down.  I was still three miles from the church where my wife Helen and my son, Shane, parked my car … With the wet grounds, I decided it would be better to go home and get a good night of sleep.  One day was enough for me.” He added, “I would like to do RAGBRAI next year and hope daily Masses are offered like this year.”

Jim Tiedje, a retired banker and member of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport, said “the hospitality in Tama and Coral­ville and having my grandson join me were the highlights. Lots of hills and horrible heat were downers. Having Mass at both St Patrick’s in Tama and St. Thomas More in Coralville was special. Father Michael McAndrew is a cousin and I had not seen him since his ordination four years ago. It was great seeing him in action in his parish.”

Barb Arland-Fye
Bicycles line the hallway of St. Patrick Catholic Church in Tama early in the morning of July 28 just before their owners, who spent the night at the church, retrieved them for the next leg of RAGBRAI.

The spirit of RAGBRAI

“Although there are challenges and certainly some things that happen outside our control, RAGBRAI really is about the highlights,” said Deacon Matt Levy, a long-distance bicyclist who serves Our Lady of the River Parish in LeClaire and Church of the Visitation in Camanche. “The people of Iowa welcome complete strangers into their busy lives. The riders share the joys of the downhills and the misery of the climbs. The volunteers in all the towns are what make RAGBRAI. The state police and local law enforcement agencies keep us safe and sound. The vendors and businesses keep us fed. And this year our local parishes and priests kept us spiritually alive, engaged and motivated to complete the miles before us fixing our eyes on Jesus.”

“You just have to embrace the difficulty. Most people I spoke to on RAGBRAI this year, I encouraged them to offer up the pain for someone they know who has a more difficult circumstance than their own. In a way, this year I was able to help others spiritually,” Deacon Levy said.

“I would encourage all dioceses to continue the effort of welcoming and allowing people to feel a sense of belonging to the Eucharist. On future RAGBRAIs, I hope we can even expand our efforts as our routes change annually. As long as I am breathing, I will continue doing RAGBRAI. It is in many senses a pilgrimage of the human spirit and faith in action. That is the spirit of RAGBRAI. Riding the bike is just a plus.”

RAGBRAI gratitude

Father Adam was equally reflective. When the storm hit, RAGBRAI participants sought shelter inside St. Thomas More the night before the wedding there. Shannon Duffy, the parish’s faith formation director, stayed with them until midnight.

“The bride and groom were completely understanding of the fact that RAGBRAI riders would be using the parking lot and possibly the church the night before their wedding,” Father Adam said. “I came to church at 8 a.m. and the bikers were long gone. Most of the campers had left. Two other people showed up to make sure the church was presentable before the wedding but quite honestly, very little needed to be done. RAGBRAI participants were so grateful for the availability of the church. They were very respectful and for the most part cleaned up after themselves. Even a good number of pets who were with campers found themselves at home in the church during the storm and treated our church respectfully.”

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